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by Aman Singh Das | March 02, 2010


How does culture play in your everyday decisions in the workplace? As you navigate your career--or job, as some would prefer to say--how much weight is given to cultural considerations and upbringing? This was the topic of discussion recently on CSRwire's newest blog feature, Talkback regarding cultural differences and the handling of corporate social responsibility.

When you discuss CSR among your peers, depending on the level of engagement within the company's hierarchy and decision-making process that you are at, there are likely to be questions raised about what it involves, what principles it ensues and how it caters to your business strategy. However, rarely, if at all, is it questioned from a cultural perspective. This also stems from my post last week on Wal-Mart's attempt at creating a comprehensive Sustainability Index that would standardize requirements across industries and the many opinions and comments it generated. Add in the suggestion that an Indian minister made regarding setting up some sort of a "CSR Exchange" so that companies become accountable for to their stakeholders, and I had a hugely argumentative debate on hand. However, having spent most of my life in India, its easiest for me to pick an example from India to illustrate my point regarding the role of culture in this debate.

India Wal-Mart

When someone "does business" in India, it takes a combination of social skills, ability to sweet talk, cross over red tape and bureaucratic demands and setting higher profit margins. And this is even more relevant because India is built on the American concept of "Mom and Pop" businesses. Rarely do stores evolve into chains and law firms evolve into national concerns with several regional offices. They stay one-concern businesses, highly lucrative locally but erasable from memory nationally. In such a culture, bring in a couple of decades of multinational growth, corporate policies and global companies, and you have a new scenario in the workplace.

Now picture talking to these relatively new members of a global office about doing business ethically and keeping transparency as an important benchmark in your strategy. After the looks of bewilderment you might get a few curious ones as well. Before you think I'm rambling, let me explain. My point is this: When you get used to a certain way of doing things, concepts like CSR become deafening in the vacuum of accountability. Of course, the Indian business I refer to is of years ago. Today, they are as competitive and as regulated, if not more, as American private and public sectors.

However, this is where the similarities end. Not only is the way CSR and sustainability are approached different, their role in making an organization accountable are radically variant too. As Rahul Mitra puts it on the Talkback blog, "[In India,] Gandhian ethics intermingle with the business case of CSR." Resulting in a decision making process in place that is a mix of ideological and highly ethical ways of doing business and out of the box approaches keeping in mind the bottom line. Mind you, not the triple bottom line.

Puzzled? Look outside your own office window. As you navigate the various departments in your office, you'll notice different agendas at work, different targets, different benchmarks of progress, and varied contributions to the revenue base. In such a mix, how would you commonize the approach of inculcating CSR and making your company more responsible?

How would you approach this in the global perspective and having A set of universal standards which dictate how a company is answerable to its stakeholders while being mindful of their environmental footprint, their contribution to their communities, the socialistic picture, and so on? Perplexing question for the best of CSR experts because the part culture plays in our adaptation to new rules, new standards and even newer technologies cannot be underestimated. An easy example for this is how brands known across countries today have reformed "Think globally, act locally" to their advantage. Continuing with India as an example, McDonald's is hugely popular there not for their cheeseburger but for their McAloo burger, which is a vegetarian option made from potatoes. Or car models. All manufacturers modify their models to fit the more rough Indian roads, lack of defined navigation in the interior locales, and driving rules. And as Mr. Mitra points out, even Disney had to modify its products to encompass European values, cuisines and characters appeal.

Maybe, just this once, a common standardized approach that Wal-Mart (which, by the way, opened their first store in India last year, stocking 90% of its shelves with local favorite brands and some nationally-produced products) is attempting to put together could benefit from a culturally influenced one that differs and adapts by industry and product?


And while I'm throwing out ideas, how about this one: How do these cultural sensitivities that differ so vastly, contribute to our unemployment numbers? A short example would serve well here as well: layoffs aren’t a known concept in India. Outside of multinational corporations with Indian offices, 2009 did not spell recession to the one billion-strong population. On the contrary, many more malls have sprung up across their capital, New Delhi, and a thousand new cars get on the road every day just in Delhi. Personalizing this example even further, on a trip last year, I was greeted with bewildered looks when I mentioned our unemployment numbers and the recessionary economy to my parents.

Why? Here's some food for thought: Because for decades, job security has been a non sequitur in India. You don’t just lose your job if you're working hard and achieving your goals. Crazy, right?

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Filed Under: CSR
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